"Uncomfortable," "excluded," "powerful," "dynamic and diverse," and "wishy-washy" were some words that baristas used to describe the mandatory anti-bias training offered by Starbucks this week. The training was heavy on media attention, but light on substance, and even lighter on impact. Staff reportedly left feeling overwhelmed and uncertain how to implement what they learned.
If Starbucks had considered the research on corporate diversity training, they would know that such an effort was doomed to fail at achieving its intended outcomes. Even worse, mandatory training might lead to undesired results such as reinforcing biases and triggering a backlash among staff.
Starbucks implemented racial bias training with the aim of creating a kumbaya work environment and a "third place" (between home and work) for customers where everyone feels like they belong. At a minimum, they want to avoid a repeat of the now infamous and embarrassing incident at a Philadelphia store in April involving the arrest of two black men.
The coffee giant temporarily shuttered 8,000 stores and put 175,000 staff nationwide through small self-guided sessions anchored by their new curriculum that challenges individuals to become "color brave." It asked questions such as "Recall when you first noticed your racial identity," and "… when you had a friend of a different race who regularly visited your home."
From the presenters in the videos to the short documentary that detailed the history of access to public spaces for African Americans, the emphasis of the training was addressing black-white relations — to the near exclusion of other racial differences or other forms of diversity. One Hispanic young woman joined others who felt left out of the conversation noting to Time, “Me and my coworkers of color felt uncomfortable the entire time.”
People are pointing to this as a moment to elevate black-white race relations to the national conversation, but that is creating a high standard for a one-size-fits-all 4-hour session to live up to.
Changing deeply held beliefs, perceptions, and even prejudices doesn't just take time but intentionality and willingness to learn from and about others. Compulsory bias trainings often fail to accomplish these goals.
After analyzing three decades of data on 800 corporations and interviews with management, two professors writing for Harvard Business Review concluded that companies are more successful at growing more diverse workforces and minimizing racially-charged episodes when they "ease up on the control tactics."
Researchers found that the impact of these trainings rarely last beyond a day or two. People are adept at learning the right answers for the sake of passing an HR course, but that doesn't translate into a meaningful change in perceptions. If only maintaining the status quo was all that resulted from diversity trainings.
Research demonstrates that such training can activate biases. Participants in early diversity training programs reported feeling a host of negative emotions including confusion, anger, or greater animosity toward other groups. This was common when training focused on treating underrepresented minority groups and women fairly in a white, male-dominated environments. Groups of people end up feeling singled out as wrongdoers for behaviors or injustices they have not been a part of.
In the Starbucks training, the heavy use of videos with police brutality against black people and the white bias served to worsen racial tensions. One Starbucks staff person explained to Philadelphia Magazine, “The training materials focused a lot on police brutality, which had nothing to do with the incident that happened… At one point, a girl at my table actually had to get up and leave because video after video they showed black people being assaulted by police or black people being verbally assaulted and white people being racially biased toward people of color.”
People are also resistant to mandatory training and will respond to it with anger and rebellion. They also do not respond to fear-based messages that rely on threats of losing their jobs or the company suffering when they discriminate.
What appears to work though is voluntary training. It leads to increased numbers of minority groups in management. In one study, when white participants were asked to read a brochure critiquing prejudice against blacks their biases were reinforced when pressured to agree with the material compared to when the choice was theirs.
Voluntary training can have its place at corporations like Starbucks, but following the racially-charged backlash, Starbucks reached for a newsworthy solution of changing hearts and minds by pushing the prevailing social justice narrative. Perhaps instead forcing staff to sit through a few hours of diversity training that paints them as bad guys or underscores their victimhood, the company should have addressed the actual situation and how a clear policy about loitering could prevent it in the future.